Understanding the Korean consumer to understand where the world is going

The Korean consumer is an Asian trendsetter and an influencer. But if we were to define him as such, we would only be looking at the finger, losing sight of the moon. Seoul Retail is an experimental laboratory that offers brands an innovative training ground for evolving sales methods, spaces, and strategies. This is why


It is a world that demands knowledge and awareness. A market that, due to the rigour of its behavioural models and social rules, combines not only an inordinate hunger for luxury and fashion. It wants (tangible) quality, attention, (maniacal) care, respect, aesthetics and beauty. He wants ‘to know‘, and be able to assess the true uniqueness of each project proposed to him. It is also a viral market because it knows it can influence consumer trends beyond its borders, particularly those that divide it from China. It is South Korea,  it is Seoul.

‘Koreans are naturally very fashion-conscious people,’ Chaty Lee, Professor of Design Management at Hongik University and founder and creative director of the Ekatrina New York brand, tells us. ‘However, because of our social structure, we are not used to expressing what we want in public or immediately. But much is changing in a direction that allows us to take to extremes the consideration that understanding the Korean consumer means (to a large extent) understanding where a certain kind of world is going.

Understanding the Korean consumer

“I see huge differences compared to ten years ago,” Cathy Lee continues. The new Korean generation, so open to social media, knows what luxury is; they understand its heritage and also what it means to express themselves through fashion. So, I think our future, in this respect, is very bright’. According to Lee Seung Ik, stylist, and lecturer at Hongik University’s Textile Art and Fashion Textile department, ‘all the different Korean luxury and fashion customers share a common appreciation‘.

For what? ‘Quality, design and self-expression’. In Korea, ‘the possession of luxury items is often considered essential to avoid feelings of social insignificance. Many people strongly associate it with demonstrating their own value’. Therefore, ‘Korea stands out as one of the world’s largest investors in luxury goods, and luxury customers are often very fashion-conscious and value quality, craftsmanship, and innovation. Consumers are willing to experiment with new styles and are no longer defined solely by-products but also by the experiences provided by brands’.

The experience that defines you

Purchase as a consequence, ownership is the result of a journey that goes far beyond the trivial act of swiping a credit card. In Korea, Chaty Lee continues, ‘We believe that something we cannot buy is more valuable. Something like time, experience, friendship, trust, or relationships. Something intangible is more valuable than something tangible’. So, service during and after the sale. “In Korea, it is very important. Even if a brand is beautiful, if we cannot receive the proper service we deserve, we often hesitate to invest our money’.

Desire for Balance

The reflection of this last consideration pushes the analysis of the Korean market to another level. “The emphasis on time and experience in the Korean market,” admits Lee Seung Ik, “reflects broader cultural values and social trends“. These include, for example, ‘the desire for work/life balance and social connectivity. South Korea’s rapid economic development has fostered a strong emphasis on work and academic achievement. As a result, Koreans often have busy schedules with limited free time. Therefore, the latter becomes particularly valuable, leading to a greater appreciation for experiences that offer enjoyment and satisfaction. In urban environments, where space is limited, and the pace of life is fast, people seek out experiences as a way to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life’.

Understanding where a certain type of world is going

They sound like theories. They are not. In Seoul, they represent a stringent, almost obsessive practice that, once experienced, changes the way one considers the spaces and moments associated with any retail activity. In other words, the definition of oneself and one’s lifestyle pass through the care one expects to receive from any retail and cultural experience, regardless (initially) of ‘the product’. It may be the search for a pair of glasses under the robotic gaze of Gentle Monster’s amazing robotic installations (pictured). Or the amazement one can feel when entering the unexpected underground space of the Starfield Library at the COEX Mall.

‘Understanding the market is essential, especially to capture the unique characteristics of the Korean market, including the emphasis on quality, innovation and brand reputation, is important to attract consumers,’ continues Lee Seung Ik. ‘To convey the brand philosophy with a powerful statement, Koreans are very attentive to the overall customer experience, especially the physical environment within the brand shops. These services are designed to enhance the consumer experience and feature an Instagrammable aesthetic, in line with the country’s vibrant social media culture’.

Seoul, global mirror

‘Flagship stores and pop-up stores in South Korea,’ Lee Seung Ik concludes, ‘generally serve as platforms for experimentation and innovation. This allows companies to test new concepts, interact directly with customers and distinguish themselves from the competition’. Strategies that, if in Seoul, are necessary for any brand that wants to approach its market from the Korean metropolis itself are reflected as in a mirror that embraces the global horizon. To make inroads in Seoul, Chaty Lee concludes, ‘you have to join the community, understand the culture and the way we think: become one of our members. We have to feel comfortable understanding, buying, receiving, designing, and being part of the community of that brand. However, I think everything also applies to the global market, not just Korea. Maybe so, but not quite yet.

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